Although, there is substantial and growing evidence that psychological and emotional abuse are as damaging as physical abuse, our social institutions are slow to recognize this, often ignoring or dismissing abuse that isn’t physical or sexual. While we do have some anti-bullying policies in schools, and measures to address workplace harassment, there is little to no protection or recourse for persons experiencing emotional and psychological abuse in their personal lives. Awareness regarding emotional and psychological domestic abuse also needs to be raised.
At OCAD University, I’m working with a research team as the primary investigator for a study entitled Domestic Abuse and the Law (http://domesticabuseandthelaw.ca). The study’s website provides a detailed project description and a new report on the legal system’s evolution and experimentation with regard to how it handles domestic abuse.
As a result of the initial phases of our research, I can see three critical areas in our legal system in dire need of review:
Criminal Code 264: Harassment. By law, uttering threats is a criminal offence. However, this is interpreted as being specific to overt threats of bodily harm, or murder. The code needs to be re-examined and reworked to include persistent threats and other forms of ongoing harassing behaviours that are psychological or emotional in nature as constituting a criminal offence. Presently, under this law, a person may be repeatedly demeaned, manipulated, taunted, and financially or emotionally threatened with absolutely no legal recourse available to support or protect them.
The pro-charging policy instituted in 1994 has yet to be fully reviewed. There was an initial review conducted that included police, but it failed to investigate the effects pro-charging has on the women it is intended to protect. Pro-charging takes the decision to prosecute away from victims of domestic abuse, and as a result can have dire, unintended consequences. Pro-charging can catalyze the accused into additional abuse and threats, which often are not taken seriously by our legal system or the actors within it. Put simply, women are often blamed for the pro-charging arrest despite having little to no control over the situation, and suffer further abuse as a result.
Shifting the financial burden from the victim to the courts for enforcement of court orders. We may entertain this financial shift to go further, even in the initial legal fees. Presently courts are complicit in the financial abuse exerted by ex partners in their structure. When motivated by power and control, forcing victims to court and subsequently ignoring court orders, provides a good mechanism for ongoing abuse. Women must take on the financial burden of legal fees, even when it is merely to reinforce previous court order of financial repayment.
We know that discussion on abuse is rising (e.g. “Rape Culture” is in the popular vernacular). But we know that the tolerance for abuse is also rising. Another study we are doing is on female leadership in Information Communications Technologies (ICTs) – it is called fem-Led (http://research.ocadu.ca/research-and-innovation/project/fem-led). Although the industry is growing, women are dropping out – largely, it seems, due to overlapping issues of sexism and abuse.
The cost of abuse includes substance abuse, loss of income, isolation, depression and so on. This needs to be turned around.
Our research team is intent understanding the issues related to domestic abuse, and looking for points of intervention in the system – to change it for the better. The three legal limitations and proposed solutions outlined above are promising examples of where our system needs reconsideration.
Over time, other women have connected with me to share their stories, and through my research I have seen that the struggle to be free of abuse seems pandemic. The emotional and psychological abuse from which women are not legally protected cuts across all kinds of relationships– regardless of age, class, religion, education, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or ability.